The 2-3 zone: Keeping Syracuse basketball relevant

Ohio State
Syracuse defends against Ohio State in the Big 10/ACC Challenege. Mandatory Photo Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports.

If you actually read the headline, here’s my follow-up: It’s true.

There is no need for the common responses of “we need to play man,” “we should have another defense to switch to,” “we need to press,” “zone defense is for (derogatory comment),” and so on.

College basketball’s statistical savant, Ken Pomeroy, compiles advanced statistics, which he shares with the world at kenpom.com. Two of his most basic are adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency. They measure the average number of points a team scores (offensive) or allows (defensive) over 100 possessions based on the quality of the opponents said team has played.

His statistical analysis has led to one common thread about national championship teams: They almost always are in the top 15 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency.

Of the squads in this season’s Final Four, Virginia and Michigan State fit that profile (the Cavaliers in the top five in both categories while the Spartans are in the top ten). Texas Tech sports the top defense, but stands 25th on the offensive side of the coin, and Auburn is No. 6 on offense, but trails at No. 36 on defense.

Other teams that were in the top 15 in both categories include Gonzaga, Duke, and North Carolina, the three one-seeds who did not make it to the Final Four. The Zags and Blue Devils made it to the Elite Eight before getting bounced. Kentucky, who also made the Elite Eight as one of the tourney’s two-seeds, was also in the top 15 of both stats.

Being in the top 15 in both adjusted efficiencies by no means guarantees winning a single game, but here are how the teams that have won national championships in the last decade have fared in both adjusted efficiencies:

  • 2009-2010: Duke – No. 1 on offense, No. 5 on defense
  • 2010-2011: Connecticut – No. 19 on offense, No. 15 on defense
  • 2011-2012: Kentucky – No. 2 on offense, No. 7 on defense
  • 2012-2013: Louisville – No. 7 on offense, No. 1 on defense
  • 2013-2014: Connecticut – No. 39 on offense, No. 10 on defense
  • 2014-2015: Duke – No. 3 on offense, No. 11 on defense
  • 2015-2016: Villanova – No. 3 on offense, No. 5 on defense
  • 2016-2017: North Carolina – No. 9 on offense, No. 11 on defense
  • 2017-2018: Villanova – No. 1 on offense, No. 11 on defense
  • 2018-2019: Virginia – No. 2 on offense, No. 5 on defense

Now, aside from being a list of teams that any good Syracuse fans despises, you may have noticed that the only teams outside of the “top 15 in both efficiencies” to win national titles in the last decade are (ugh) Connecticut and the Huskies were still in the top 15 in defense both times.

» Related: Another banner year for Syracuse’s ACC mates in football and basketball

And what does that have to do with Syracuse? Well, here is where the Orange stood in the last decade in both statistics with their postseason tournament finish:

  • 2009-2010: #6 on offense, #14 on defense (NCAA Sweet Sixteen)
  • 2010-2011: #24 on offense, #17 on defense (NCAA Round of 32)
  • 2011-2012: #7 on offense, #16 on defense (NCAA Elite Eight)
  • 2012-2013: #26 on offense, #6 on defense (NCAA Final Four)
  • 2013-2014: #28 on offense, #13 on defense (NCAA Round of 32)
  • 2014-2015: #117 on offense, #20 on defense (self-imposed postseason ban)
  • 2015-2016: #50 on offense, #18 on defense (NCAA Final Four)
  • 2016-2017: #30 on offense, #117 on defense (NIT second round)
  • 2017-2018: #135 on offense, #5 on defense (NCAA Sweet Sixteen)
  • 2018-2019: #59 on offense, #30 on defense (NCAA First Round)

There are a couple takeaways that can be made about the Syracuse 2-3 zone over the years.

The one time this decade that Jim Boeheim did not roll out a team that was in the top ten percent of all Division One teams in defense, that team did not make the NCAA Tournament, even with one of the better offenses in the country. In fact, that 2016-2017 team was a grease fire on defense, giving up 75 points or more in half of their 34 games while playing at a slower pace than two-thirds of all Division I teams.

Conversely, when the zone is at its peak, it is capable of carrying pretty good offensive talent far in the postseason. The two times the zone ranked in the top ten nationally, SU went to a Final Four and squeaked out three NCAA wins by a total of nine points while never scoring more than 60 points in an individual game. That latter team features the worst offensive unit of the decade for SU.

There are other complaints about the zone, too.

“It’s hard to recruit to the zone because the NBA wants guys who play man defense.”

Playing zone defense can allow players to have success on the court at SU earlier in their careers. While he shot almost 42 percent from three against ACC foes, Buddy Boeheim did not physically look like he would be able to get that much time playing man-to-man defense in ACC action. Eric Devendorf was never a stopper on defense and the zone helped him contribute early. This is not to insult players like these, but to say that there is less potential hindrance in the zone because of physical limitations.

There is also this potential recruiting pitch: “Look, we know you’re not a finished product on defense. Come to Syracuse and play zone. Prove you deserve to be on the floor on the offensive end and the zone will help you on defense while you play.”

By the way, in case you had not noticed, zone defenses have been legal in the NBA for years.

“Syracuse doesn’t get elite players because they play zone.”

Almost half of Duke’s defensive possessions in the 2017-2018 season, including over 92 percent of their possessions from February 11 to the end of the season, were in 2-3 zone.

Why do you think Mike Krzyzewski had Boeheim as his zone defense guru during those multiple Olympic gold medal runs? In that 2017-2018 season, Coach K had four freshmen who were top 15 recruits playing the 2-3 zone on a team that made it to the Elite Eight. Two of those recruits still got picked in the top seven of the NBA Draft, even though they played so much zone.

“Some guy off the bench always has a career night against us.”

Random things happen in sports. In three games against the Orange this past season, Pitt shot 11-for-35 (31.4 percent), 5-for-22 (22.7 percent), and 10-for-23 (43.5 percent) from three-point range. All told, the Panthers were 26-of-80 (32.5 percent) from deep against SU, which is in line with their 33.1 percent mark on the full season (and the 32.9 percent SU allowed from deep o the season). In one game against the Orange, they just about matched that mark, but in the two others, they were around ten percentage points higher or lower than that average. Randomness in action.

By the way, those guys off the bench get more playing time against Syracuse because the 2-3 zone defense forces a lot of threes. (In those aforementioned Pitt games, Jared Wilson-Frame made five threes off the bench in the first one… then started the final two and made a dozen triples combined. By the way, Wilson-Frame shot 42.5 percent from three against Syracuse and 38.9 percent from deep against everyone else. In other words, a very good three-point shooter came off the bench and made threes.)

Over 48 percent of all field goals taken by Orange opponents this season were from three-point range, a mark higher than all but four teams in the country. In other words, guys who can make threes get more playing time against the Orange because SU forces more three-point attempts. You just don’t notice when those guys shoot 1-for-5 because it’s not noteworthy.

The zone does what it is supposed to and a little more – like keeping Syracuse dancing in March.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 550 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.